Why the sky won't fall even if gay marriage spurs polygamy
Families have always been diverse, polygyny historically and X-culturally common
Posted Jul 05, 2015
The recent US Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges legally recognizing same-sex marriage has potentially opened the door to multiple-partner/extra-dyadic marriage. Supreme Court Justice Roberts noted that:
It is striking how much of the majority’s reasoning would apply with equal force to the claim of a fundamental right to plural marriage. If “[t]here is dignity in the bond between two men or two women who seek to marry and in their autonomy to make such profound choices,” why would there be any less dignity in the bond between three people who, in exercising their autonomy, seek to make the profound choice to marry? If a same-sex couple has the constitutional right to marry because their children would otherwise “suffer the stigma of knowing their families are somehow lesser,” why wouldn’t the same reasoning apply to a family of three or more persons raising children? If not having the opportunity to marry “serves to disrespect and subordinate” gay and lesbian couples, why wouldn’t the same “imposition of this disability,” serve to disrespect and subordinate people who find fulfillment in polyamorous relationships?
THE Family vs. Families
Those who cast one form of family as the only natural or legitimate form are culturally and historically myopic. While in the US we idolize a family composed of a man who works for pay outside the home and a woman who works inside the home for free – what family historian Stephanie Coontz calls a “male-breadwinner family” – it is not the only form family has ever taken. Indeed, it has never been the dominant form, even in 1950s America, because women of color and poor women have always had to work outside of the home for pay to support their families. Historians, anthropologists, and sociologists like myself understand that families take many forms throughout time and across cultures. To pretend that the heterosexual, dyadic (two-person), monogamous, male breadwinner family is universal shows a significant lack of understanding of the world as a whole.
Polygyny Around the World
Polygyny – the form of polygamy in which one man has multiple wives – has been far more common across human history than monogamy, especially for wealthy men. In sharp contrast, polyandry – one woman with multiple husbands – is quite rare. Numerous religions allow men who are able to provide sufficient resources up to four wives (and sometimes more for very wealthy men). Sacred texts such as the Torah, Bible, and Koran include many examples of men with multiple wives begetting many children. China’s long and complex history is filled with polygynous marriages for the ruling classes and wealthy elite.
Today polygyny is it is widely practiced in portions of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. In the United States, religious subcultures such as some Muslims and Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS, used to be called Mormon) practice polygyny. Although public scandals about older men marrying and impregnating 14 year-old girls sensationalize the worst possible scenario for polygyny, research indicates that many people in plural marriages are happy with their family lives.
Horses and Toasters?
In NONE of these nations do people marry animals or inanimate objects. Taken in a global and historical context, it is abundantly clear that plural marriage does not inevitably lead to marriage with animals and objects because it has not in any of these many countries over thousands of years. One of the few cultural constants that appear in virtually every human society, marriage requires that the spouse a) be human and b) not be your own child. One significant caveat is that many cultures provide religious context for pledging ones’ self to a Deity as a nun or monk. Who precisely counts as family and what exactly constitutes incest can vary widely across cultures and time, but they are almost always human (except for the divine) and almost never include your own child as a legitimate choice for spouse.
Polyamory Differs from Polygyny
Polyamory differs significantly from polygyny in at least four significant ways. First, polyamory is not based on a religion that dictates a specific family structure. Second, some people in polyamorous relationships are not and do not want to be married. Third, people have same-sex polyamorous relationships as well as heterosexual ones, as opposed to the solely heterosexual coupling that goes with polygyny. Fourth and most importantly, women in polyamorous relationships can have multiple partners as well as men. In fact, women in polyamorous relationships have as much freedom and social power as women in monogamous relationships, and possibly even more because women are highly sought after in many poly communities. These significant differences mean that polyamorous marriages would not look the same as polygynous marriages.
So how would they look? And how could society deal with plural marriage when it comes to things like taxes and custody of children? I explore these questions in my next blog.